Partisan divides in a nonpartisan race, the Wis. Supreme Court’s evolution

Election 2023
Published: Feb. 14, 2023 at 6:40 PM CST
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(WSAW) - A week ahead of the February primary, voters are sussing out each candidate for the Wisconsin Supreme Court to narrow the pool from four to two. From there, two will move on to the April general election and the ultimate winner will determine whether the court has a conservative or liberal lean as the races become more partisan in nature.

However, that partisanship, in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan seat, has not always been like this.

“When I ran and others ran, it really was a nonpartisan race,” Hon. Janine Geske, who served on the Court between 1993-1998 said.

She explained there was far less spending on campaigns at that time and candidates tried to gain support broadly.

“You tried to get as many people from both sides of the aisle politically. Professionally, you get district attorneys, and you get defense lawyers, you got plaintiff’s lawyers, and insurance, defense lawyers to show that you are impartial, that you could get a wide grouping of support from people of different viewpoints, wanting different results from the court.”

These days, candidates are more open with their political leanings and views on issues generally. Political and special interest groups are pouring in money touting those candidates’ beliefs in ads, with record spending in this particular cycle. Howard Schweber, a political science professor and affiliate faculty member of the law school at UW-Madison said 2008 was the turning point for partisanship in the judicial races.

“Business interests who felt that the Wisconsin Supreme Court was hostile to them on questions of things like products liability, made a conscious, organized effort to recruit and promote candidates who would support their interests,” he explained. “The first of these were Justice Ziegler and Gableman who... were selected despite having severe, really severe ethical issues and no obvious qualifications for the job. They were selected, simply in order to promote the interests of the business community, and by extension, conservative politics.”

Hon. Geske said a federal case also contributed to the shift.

“Citizens United decision by the United States Supreme Court has allowed all sorts of corporate groups, and there’s been allowance of all anonymous corporate groups, being able to contribute towards campaigns, and we don’t even know who those people are, and what their issues are.”

Hon. Geske does not see the trend of high spending, outside influence, and partisanship changing. She said the only slight exception can be when there is a strong incumbent running.

“It’s one of the reasons I’ve slowly, over a long career, started believing that we need to appoint judges. Because I think that selecting them is not working in giving us what our forefathers and the founders of this country wanted, which was that third branch of government to balance out the other two.”

Justices serve 10-year terms and she said it is imperative that people believe they can have a fair shot in any cases that come before the court. She encourages voters to look at candidates’ qualifications, how they have spent their careers, and records of whether they gave parties equal opportunity in the courtroom, rather than choosing candidates based on special interest ads.

Election 2023